Nilima Achwal

Detroit: Emerging from the Ground Up

“Take that idea and start as small as you can, but with maximum impact.” Torya Blanchard, founder of Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes, Detroit (see video)

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a unique social enterprise conference at the University of Michigan’s Ross Business School: Revitalization and Business. Its focus was not on a continent, a region, or a nation in need. Rather, it focused on one single American city: Detroit, Michigan. In some ways Detroit has come to represent those things of which we are least proud in the U.S. – enormous socio-economic disparity, rampant crime, obesity and diabetes, under-resourced schools, unemployment, corruption, and lack of public transportation infrastructure. It has been a living showcase of our weakest moment.

At the same time, as astutely declared in Chrysler’s recent Super Bowl commercial featuring Eminem, “It’s the hottest fire that makes the hardest steel.” Detroit has a burning, raw energy driving it to rebuild itself, and quickly. From big industry to grassroots community organizations, Detroit is on a mission towards one goal: reclaiming its place among American metropolises. From this comes a unique collaborative environment. In Detroit, entrepreneurs rave that if you want to get something done, people will help you do it. Local business owners are often happy when another business opens on the same street-instead of taking away their business, it increases it by making their neighborhoods safer and nicer.

The Revitalization and Business: Focus Detroit conference brought together industry and thought leaders from the city to provide a glimpse into some of the amazing work being done there right now. General Motors and Ford executives alluded to the idea just as Detroit became famous for the assembly line, new innovations in clean-energy vehicles from Detroit would change the rest of the world. Other leaders encouraged companies to invest in Detroit and open factories; that is what will revive the city.

But Detroit residents themselves are also brushing themselves off and emerging from the gloom. Small projects and individuals are making powerful waves from the ground up. Projects like LOVELAND, Detroit SOUP, Design 99, Get Fresh Detroit, and countless others echoed the credo resonating throughout the conference: “If you are a young person who wants to make an immediate, huge impact, Detroit is the place to be.” A previous post by Moses Lee explains how Get Fresh Detroit is supplying fresh produce in a city with no supermarkets or grocery stories.

LOVELAND is a part-virtual, part-physical community that has taken advantage of the extremely low property prices in the city to catalyze change. For $1, anyone can “own” one square inch of land in Detroit, which is visible on an online map. Online, these “inchvestors,” as they’re called, may view and manipulate their micro-plots of land. Those with larger plots often place physical objects-original pieces of art, a mailbox-on the plot itself. Inchvestors do not own titles to the land and cannot vote in Detroit, but are mentally engaged with the neighborhood, which is an important first step in urban revitalization.

The idea started when co-founder Jerry Paffendorf bought a vacant lot for $500, and then put 10,000 square inches up for sale online. Soon, hundreds of people from across the world felt ownership of a small bit of Detroit. LOVELAND gives half of its revenue as grants to projects in Detroit, having given more than $8,500 so far to art works and building renovation. Recently, LOVELAND has also released a detailed online property map of the city with discussion boards for residents, creating a dialogue space for what’s happening on the ground in the neighborhood.

Though this conference explored business in Detroit, the themes of art and creativity arose repeatedly. Perhaps those who can see beauty in everything are drawn to the city. Or maybe art is integral to reviving the soul of a depressed city, in order to first instill a sense of dignity in the residents and inspire them to believe that something better is possible. For example:

  • Matthew Naimi’s Recycle Here!, a fully-funded green business that brought recycling to the city, also offers their warehouse as a creative space for local musicians and artists.
  • Gina Reichert created Design 99, a design studio that specializes in over-the-counter design services, featuring a $99 house call special. The studio renovates anything from a multi-family immigrant home to a posh downtown loft.
  • Randall Fogelman of Eastern Market, Detroit’s largest farmer’s market, spoke extensively of the market’s renovation and construction initiative to improve the market core.
  • Amy Kaheri and Vanessa Miller co-founded a weekly public dinner called Detroit SOUP in order to fund micro-grants for creative projects in Detroit. At each SOUP, diners learned about the many projects that people were pioneering in their own neighborhoods. The winner received the pool of money raised that night to jump-start the project.

Whatever the focus or approach, everyone at the Revitalization and Business conference drove home the same point-the narrative about places often doesn’t match what’s going on on the ground. This is certainly true for Detroit, which is picking itself up quickly to propel forward in the next five years.

Model D Media created a fantastic online newspaper featuring stories about investment-not loss-in Detroit to help people see the city from a different lens. Sometimes that’s all it takes to inspire action.

Impact Assessment, Social Enterprise
social enterprise